Remember, There Isn’t a Right Answer

I said last week that metal casting students (engineers in general, but especially metal casters) are some of the most static and resistant to change of any at Tech. Well, they’re a faithful reflection of the field as a whole.

In an industry whose main job is to make the same parts in the same ways, for the sake of reliability, predictability, accountability, day in and day out, that repetition bleeds into many aspects beyond the physical process itself. It creates that mentality that change is scary and bad: “we know method A works because we’ve used it for twenty years. We don’t want to risk trying method B.”

There aren’t many fields where a textbook on modern practices and techniques can be thirteen years old and still completely up to date, but I have one, and it is.

I think a large part of the problem is with how casting students are taught. In the introduction and first chapter of Ellen Langer’s book The Power of Mindful Learning, she discusses the dangers of overlearning basic skills, to the point where they become rote and mindless. The danger, she says, is that when a skill can be performed without thinking about it, it cannot be modified or adapted to new contexts. She cites a number of examples where students were given lessons in either authoritative, this-is-the-single-correct-way styles or more open-ended, conditional, there-are-more-options-than-these styles.

This really struck a chord with me because I see the former style so often in our curriculum. The thirteen-year-old text, for example, presents its information as absolute fact, this-is-how-it’s-done. This is one of the two texts that I have available with which to teach my design class. The other text, while it takes an approach that’s very contradictory to the older book, still presents the information as this-is-the-only-true-answer. Neither of them allow for a great degree of latitude or creativity.

I’ve seen it in myself, where skills I’ve either acquired or have been taught have stayed fixed and static because I never thought to vary them or never thought I could. I did my best to fight back against it starting last semester, when I was helping to teach hands-on skills to new students at the foundry. I made sure to minimize how often I said “this is the way to do it” and instead phrase it as “one way that works for me is X”, and I encouraged them to find their own styles.

I want to continue this in my class this semester, especially since it’s a design class. Nothing will create worse designs than a mental framework that can’t change and is locked in a singular method of doing things. I want to encourage my students to get creative, to challenge and doubt what the texts, and I, tell them is “right” or “wrong”. And that’s the beauty of the computer simulations that we can do in my class: they can make as many different designs as they want, get things “wrong” a hundred times, and just keep playing around with it, keep tweaking their designs, until they find their unique vision and strategy for how to approach these issues.

At the beginning of the semester, I asked my students to tell me what they wanted to learn from the class and to describe their learning styles. One student’s response stands out to me in particular after having read Langer’s piece: they said that they would love to get a flowchart for the design process. This is a terribly stifling idea, that there’s a simple procedure to follow to make a good design. If making a flowchart works well for you, then by all means, make one. But I wouldn’t dare create one for the class and have them all follow it. Everyone needs to be creative and flexible, willing to fail, to try new things, because that is how you truly Create.

Because remember, there’s no right answer.

5 thoughts on “Remember, There Isn’t a Right Answer”

  1. Hey.

    So there is something you can do to help which might be the middle ground. I agree avoid the flowchart as that is a decision making tool (yes-no, left-right). Instead how about giving them a list of things to consider and mention that they are in no particular order. Just the topics or concepts that should be reviewed during the whole process. Some might just go down the list, but its better than making all of the decisions for them. This can make a decision support system, since they do not have all of the information themselves yet.

    1. I agree with you and Ken that a flow chart to map and limit the decision making/creative design process seems arcane. It conjures images of the tv commercial for Little Ceasars pizza commercial about the laminated recipe (https://youtu.be/nuJl9_kfVBg). But I really like Ken’s suggestion to give the students considerations. I think it is important for the students to understand the relationships between the choices they consider, the decisions they make and the outcomes they achieve. So much of what we do in life and in education is interrelated and can have global impacts, it’s important to consider the second and third order affects of our decisions. To me that is a critical component of connected learning.

      Thinking about your example of the 13-year old text, I think the why hasn’t it changed question has to be asked. Do we change processes from X to Y to save four cents in the production but end up laying off thousands of people who are currently employed? Do we not change processes just because it will require workers to acquire new skills or because some people will no longer have their current job? How does a simple design change impact the entire life-cycle of a product including the post consumer waste? These are potentially ugly, messy questions that emphasize the need to make mindful decisions in every aspect of our work and lives.

    2. That’s more or less what I’ve tried to do. Gating design is an interesting problem because while it has a lot of avenues for individual perspectives and opinions, a large part of it can be pretty much “calculated into place” after a couple initial decisions. After the calculations that lay out the overall structure, designers can then tweak and finesse the details as they see fit. So in class we’ve gone through conceptual principles and the general equations and relations between different components, which then leaves those final (yet critical) details up to the individual. I’ve given them a design assignment with very few constraints just to see what they can come up with, but in the future they’ll be under more restrictions of practicality, cost, quality, etc.

  2. I really could relate to a lot of the statements in your post. I have talked to a lot of engineering students about their learning strategies, and most students just do as many practice problems as they can for their engineering classes. They want to do as many problems as they can so that they have seen all the different variations for a test. And I have heard many students say they just want a flow chart; they just want to know exactly what they have to do. I’m hoping that we can get away from this practice of handing out sets and sets of practice problems and encourage students to think. As you mentioned, being flexible and willing to try new things are really important, especially in engineering.

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